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Housing and Homelessness

For Unhoused OC Residents, Wet Winter Is An Added Health Risk

A man in a black jacket with a red hoodie over his head looks down at piles of clothing and a soaked red sleeping bag on the ground next to a road. A bus station advertising board is in the background.
Rick Davitt alongside his soaked possessions, including his sleeping bag, after they got drenched in rain in Huntington Beach, on Jan. 10, 2023.
(Jill Replogle
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Tens of thousands of unhoused Southern Californians have spent this week trying to stay dry and warm while the latest storm pummeled the state, dropping 1.5 inches of water in Orange County and up to 5 inches in Pasadena.

Fifty-eight-year-old Rick Davitt sifted through his soaked possessions at a bus stop in Huntington Beach Tuesday afternoon. Davitt, who said he recently got out of the hospital after an operation to remove a hernia, spent the previous night trying to stay dry and warm.

"I can never sleep in these conditions," he said. "I was freezing."

In the morning, he said, police officers told him he needed to leave his dry spot out in front of a 99 Cents Only store. "I'm trying to survive," Davitt said, remembering what he told the officers.

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For the first time in 15 years, Orange County is not opening a cold weather emergency shelter this season. There are other shelters in the county — more than ever, in fact — but all have requirements that can be hard for some unhoused people to meet, like being able to show prior residency in the community.

For those without shelter, this winter’s back-to-back storms are an added health risk.

"Obviously, we're still dealing with COVID, we're dealing with flu, upper respiratory infections," said Michael Sean Wright, founder of the street medicine group Wound Walk OC. "If you're already not well and are vulnerable, imagine what these cold and wet conditions are like for long, sustained periods of time."

Wright said Orange County officials had worked in recent years to close off storm drains where unhoused people would sometimes seek shelter but then find themselves in danger of being swept away by unexpected rainwater.

"We have less of that happening," Wright said, "but more people just trying to seek higher ground that's covered."

Covered areas outside, like underpasses, he said, are hard to come by and often pose health risks.

"The underpasses are just really harsh conditions," Wright said. "We have to wear ear protection when we go under there because of how loud the cars are. Now imagine all the exhaust fumes and the pollutants that are in the air, plus the cold temperatures, the wet conditions, that's not favorable for good health."

Rainiest Winter In Years

As of early Tuesday, central Orange County had received about 8.5 inches of rain since Oct. 1, the beginning of California's "water year," said Alex Tardy, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service's San Diego forecast office. Annual average rainfall for the area is 12 inches, Tardy said, meaning rain levels are higher than normal this year and way ahead of previous drought years.

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"They have more rain right now than all of last year," Tardy said.

That's great for replenishing the state's water supply but tough if you live on the street, as Davitt does. Davitt said that in previous years, he often stayed during cold and rainy nights at the Armory in Santa Ana, where the county used to host a cold weather shelter.

"It's dangerous and stuff, but I'm trying to find something like that right now," he said.

An Imperfect Solution

The Armory, which offered a meal and a cot for anyone who needed it, had known problems. Some people told LAist in the past that they'd been robbed there or had gotten sick because of the close quarters.

Neighbors and city leaders in Santa Ana and Fullerton, where another cold weather shelter operated until 2020, also complained that the shelters attracted unhoused people from other parts of the county, then left them on the street when the shelter’s doors closed each morning.

This year, the county has been unable to find an organization to operate its cold weather shelter after the city of Santa Ana blocked its effort in October to host the shelter at a Salvation Army location there. The city has long argued that other OC cities offload their duty to care for unhoused residents onto Santa Ana.

Still, what Davitt needed, after his red sleeping bag was soaked through with rain, was a roof over his head and a place to dry out his belongings. He got both, at least temporarily, after LAist posted a photo on social media of Davitt at the bus stop.

Justin Speak, a pastor at the nearby Beachpoint Church, saw the post, picked Davitt up and brought him to the church. "We don't have a permanent place for him right now but he'll at least be OK for the time being," said Speak, adding that the church partners with other groups to offer resources for people in need.

Homeless Deaths In OC At All-Time High

In 2022, 485 unhoused people died in Orange County, according to a tally kept by Father Dennis Kriz, a pastor at St. Philip Benizi Church in Fullerton. That's the highest death toll since Kriz started counting, in 2018, he said. It's also a 27% increase over last year and well over double the number of unhoused people who died in pre-pandemic 2019, when 209 people died, according to Kriz's tally.

Kriz thinks that given the continuing inclement weather — another storm is expected later this week — the governor should declare a homelessness emergency and ask the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to set up tents in individual cities to help provide shelter.

"FEMA literally exists for this, for emergency management," Kriz said. "There's no reason why every one of the 34 municipalities that are here in Orange County could not have a tent or two, or more, really, to provide emergency shelter," he said.

Wright from Wound Walk OC said his organization, which operates at night, will offer people dry clothes throughout the week to replace wet clothing. Wound Walk OC also deploys several "heating pods" in the winter, repurposed ice fishing domes used to treat people with medical needs.

"Once folks are inside, it gets pretty nice and warm," Wright said.

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